Actress Pam Grier

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Grier shares stories from her new memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, including her transition from singing to acting and how she gained the confidence to be successful.


Pam Grier: Can I Facebook that one? (Laughter) You in trouble.
Tavis: (Laughs) Pleased to welcome Pam Grier back to this program. The talented actress is out now with a new memoir called “Foxy, My Life in Three Acts.” Pam Grier, always good to have you on the program.
Grier: Yes. (Laughter) I couldn’t wait to come back.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you back.
Grier: Since you were my first.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s – okay, stop, stop. (Laughter) That was an off-camera conversation that was not to make its way onto the airwaves.
Speaking of the book, though, first of all, put that cover back up, Jonathan. Great, great, great cover. Tell me about this photo>
Grier: That photo was a gift. Matthew Ralston –
Tavis: Love this photo.
Grier: – took that photograph, and of course Grand Central Publishing, my wonderful editor, Karen Thomas – we had gone through so many photographs and trying to come up with what would reflect my spirit and show empowerment and vulnerability. That was the one they wanted, and he generously gave us the rights to use it.
Tavis: I ask that question – there have been a number of books over the years, of course, on this program that I’ve been curious about the photo, but I was really curious about yours because it’s this great photo with the word “Foxy” across it. I’m thinking you must have had 10 gazillion photos to go through to try to find the right one for your memoir.
Grier: Mm-mmm, not really.
Tavis: Come on, as many photos as you’ve taken?
Grier: Very, very, very difficult. Plus you have to pay, beg. Not all of them really encompass where you are today. See, I’ve had a span of a career for four decades. That’s a lot. As you’ve read the sequences in my life and circumstances, there’s a lot of undercurrent. There’s a lot, you could feel a lot. When you look, I think you see a depth, and that’s what they informed me, and that’s what they wanted to depict. And it says a lot.
Tavis: To that undercurrent, and I’m going to get to some of that in just a second
Grier: Uh-on.
Tavis: A lot of that in just a second. To that undercurrent, though, let me ask a strange question. This question came to me in going through the book, which is whether or not – and it may be forthcoming – whether or not you can now look back on your life with all the undercurrent and pinpoint a time when you were happiest, most blissful, on a personal level, not a professional level? Do you have any idea when that was, or is that yet to come?
Grier: Yes, there was a moment where I was doing my first play, “Fool for Love,” by Sam Shepherd – 90 minutes and no intermission. The challenge from Roger Robinson I had just seen years ago doing “Soldier’s Play” at the (unintelligible) ensemble theater company.
Tavis: Roger won the Tony last year.
Grier: Yes, he did. Yes, he did. He’s a mentor, yes, Roger.
Tavis: Go, Roger. Yeah, I love Roger.
Grier: He said, “Pam, you should do the boards. You should do theater, because you have this energy and you have a quietness, you have a spectrum of energy and a well, a deep well.” I didn’t think I could achieve what I saw on stage with these fine, fine actors, and when I saw my first – when I had my first performance, I felt it then. “Fool for Love.”
I was completely – this is what I love. This is what this is all about. I was content and I was challenged and I was passionate, and it enhanced my passion to this day.
Tavis: There are some wonderful parts to this book that being a fan of yours for as many years as I have been, I knew some of the stuff, or at least I knew the surface of some of this stuff, but getting a chance to hear from you the back story to this stuff really brought your life to life for me. There were a number of things, again, that I knew that I didn’t know the drill-down on and had forgotten about.
I had no idea – I knew this, but I – again, before you became an actress you were singing, but not just singing; singing for some major people. Bobby Womack?
Grier: I had sung background for Bobby Womack on a weekend, a starving student, and I was getting – he said, “I have a friend that needs more background singers,” and I said, “Great, okay.” “His name is Sylvester Stewart.”
Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes.
Grier: I didn’t know – I said, “Where have I heard that name?”
Tavis: Sylvester Stewart? (Laughs)
Grier: So I go the next day to CBS Studios on Sunset and go through the guards, the process, and I get up there, and there is the background singers of Wonderlove, which was the background singers for Stevie Wonder, and I said, “Oh,” and the guy, the manager, he was saying, “Oh, sign in, check in, that’s the singers for – and you’ll be singing with them.”
I go, “Oh, my God.” So yeah, I think I’m singing for Stevie Wonder, but I’m not – it’s Sylvester Stewart. I walk up to the window and there’s this big ‘fro, fringe (unintelligible) and there’s that big smile. I’m going, “Oh, my God, it’s Sly and the Family Stone.”
It’s just unbelievable. I was speechless. I was a starving student and here is Sly and the Family Stone. I was selling his records to put myself through college, through school, and here he is; I’m singing background.
I got to go in and riff a little with him, and he was a genius. He was literally writing on studio time. It was amazing.
Tavis: But hanging out with Stevie’s background Wonderlove, singing with Sly, singing with Bobby – why did you end up going into the acting thing and not the music thing?
Grier: I wanted to be in film. I wanted to be a film student, possibly be a director or cinematographer, not an actor. That was my goal. I didn’t believe I had the physical beauty that I’d seen projected and advertised in movies, in theater. It just wasn’t for me. I just didn’t feel I could be –
Tavis: Wait, wait, wait, wait, hold – hold up. You didn’t think you had that?
Grier: No.
Tavis: You had won beauty contests.
Grier: Not at all. Not at all.
Tavis: You’d been in beauty contests –
Grier: With my swimsuit on backwards.
Tavis: Yeah, that was a funny story. That was a story, yeah. (Laughter) You might as well tell it now, since you outed yourself. I wasn’t going to tell that story.
Grier: I had it on backwards and it fit better, what can I tell you? (Laughter) My mother really wanted me to be in possibly a beauty pageant, not only for if I could win, but it helped improve my self-image because of trauma in my childhood and other issues.
I felt beauty was a magnet for abuse, and I had suffered greatly for it. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book, to share my experiences, to empower and inspire others. Because I really hate to see abusive behavior being passed on from generation to generation to generation, when we have access to health and counseling and Dr. Phil.
So part of that was to help me with my self-esteem, to be among people, reach out to others, have them embrace me, try to find out about me, who I was, and that I’m okay if the complement me on what they consider as beauty. Today, fast-forward, I believe that it’s not about your physical aspect; it’s about your confidence.
Tavis: That’s a big fast-forward; it’s a huge quantum leap. Tell me about how, though, you got through the period of thinking that your beauty was being used against you? How did you get past that? Because obviously, when we get to know you as a movie star and all your glamour and in some movies certain nude scenes, you obviously got past that at some point. How’d you get past that?
Grier: I feel that when you’re playing another character, I’m not Pam. I’m split. I’m playing another person, another psyche – my body, my mind, everything. So I was able to separate myself from that, and I found solace, in a way.
I was not hiding, but I wasn’t playing me. As Roger Corman, who gave me my first job, I said, “Roger, I can’t lose my jobs. I don’t know how to be an actor, and I don’t find my – all these women out here who are waiting to come in for this role are stunning, they’re beautiful. No makeup, afro not really even.”
So he had given me a book called “The Actor Prepares” by Constantin Stanislavski, who created the method, and I read it and I approached it as there’s no such thing as a small role. When you are an actor, you bring a tool in your craft but you are not that person.
I was able to be distant by portraying another person, another character, if you will, and I found myself not stuttering and not having anxiety attacks when I was portraying another soul, another being, and I found comfort in that. I think many actors do, playing someone other than themselves.
So that segued into more roles, but I never thought I would continue, that eventually I would go back and be a director, because I was really fascinated with the lenses and camera and not really thinking I had that beauty, but they were responding to my body, my physicality, which was the sign of the times.
The women’s movement and everything, it was the sexual revolution, Woodstock, body painting, skirts, the whole thing, and you were wrapped up in that and that was a pivotal moment for me because I could see that I’m not experienced, but they want me for my body. So how do I use that as a commodity to make money, maintain respect and move forward, if at all?
Tavis: You’ve said a couple of things I want to go back and pick up on.
Grier: Oh, good. (Laughter)
Tavis: One of them is this – one of them is recently on this program we had the iconic comedian Carol Burnett. Carol Burnett has a new memoir out as well, and Carol Burnett said to me in our conversation that she does not believe that a variety show like the “Carol Burnett Show” back in the day could get off the ground today.
That’s another conversation, but the point was that she was so glad that she came along in that time to do what she did, because she couldn’t do that now. I raise that to ask, to your point now, Pam, whether or not you think that Pam Grier would be the Pam Grier that we know Pam Grier as if you had been situated in a different time, if it hadn’t been in that era – the Blaxploitation era and the ‘fros, and to your point, people obsessed with bodies and sex and all. How much of that has to do with the era that you came up in?
Grier: The timing is critical because it was the women’s movement – independence of their body, loving the body, being equal to the prowess of the male posturing, the female posturing. There were quite a few films done before I had become very prominent in the film industry that had the same formula but were done by Black males.
Pimps and hos, the whole formula of the Blaxploitation film, but it wasn’t brought up, it wasn’t given that title or stigma or moniker or whatever from everyone’s perspective until I did it, and then now I’m the spearhead.
No, it was done before me, and I was a woman – at that time, women were in the kitchen. They weren’t seen in television and films doing martial arts, handling guns, standing up to men, running, fighting, getting out of situations using their wits.
Today, I think what I did then evolved into today, where women aren’t depicted as victims. They are leaders, they’re heroines, they’re the victor, if you will. So I think that segue, that timing was perfect for me then. Today I would be one of many and I’d have to work at being unique and better to stand out.
Tavis: You were one of the first major Black stars to do certain nude scenes, as you talk about in the book. How did you know when it was appropriate versus gratuitous?
Grier: I just knew from the writing. You could tell. If the scene needed empathy, if it needed someone to not be victimized, then you’re going to struggle with the image. It’s going to contradict what you’re trying to say. To see a woman being so victimized and brutalized made people feel more for her, if I approached it in that way that yes, she is really seriously being brutalized, and it would take away from people going, “Oh, wow, there’s a breast.”
Men hadn’t seen breasts before? A breast, a nipple? Let’s see what happens if it’s your daughter or your sister or your mother, and give them layers and textures, not just a superficial resolution that no one would remember, and we can have this dialogue about it.
Because there were instances where men felt entitled be very brutal to women, and I wanted to show that in the film. I didn’t want to continue sweeping it under the rug, because that was a part of my own personal history, not once, but twice.
Tavis: To your point now, how difficult on the one hand, or on the other hand perhaps therapeutic was it for you to write so openly about being raped not once, but twice?
Grier: And an attempt on the third.
Tavis: Mm-hmm.
Grier: I drank a lot. (Laughs) I needed to share that so that my audience, who have been a lifeline to be, as many of my peers, directors, casting directors, people who will get to know where my strength came from. I just didn’t wake up and all of a sudden it’s there. I had to work for it. I see that behavior in families, in relationships – abusive behaviors being passed on from generation to generation, still to this day.
I said, “You know what? Let’s stop being so hurtful. Let’s start working towards wellness, a healing in our community, a healing in relationships, so male and female can finally sit down and understand that that young boy or young girl saw behavior exhibited by their parents that was negative and abusive and they’re going to pass it on.
They’ve learned it and now they’re – you see it every day now, the bullies at school. Where do they get that behavior? Young women are committing suicide over bullying by male and female.
I experienced so much personally, and how difficult it was. I was lucky that I don’t have tremendous scar tissue from it, and I work on it every day. One of my encounters rendered me to stutter and a horse – all through my life horses have helped me to regain my composure and my confidence.
Tavis: Why horses?
Grier: Their nobility, their strength, being so – they listen, they don’t judge, and when you partnership with them, it just calmed me down. As a matter of fact, my stuttering didn’t go away. It can return. I have a mechanism that I can control. But when I’m in a fearful, where I’m fearful, I’m frightened, something is bothering me, I will begin to stutter again. It can happen.
With horses, my solitude with them, riding them, they’re so powerful, you can – you’re okay, Pam. You’re okay. We’re not going to hurt you.
Tavis: Here’s why it’s been fascinating for me, watching you over the years and studying your work, is – and I’m quoting somebody in the book, which I’ll get to in a second, that you are this sophisticated, cosmopolitan, fine, butt-kicking sister on screen, and you’re really just a country hick. (Laughter)
Grier: And military, and urban, and urban. I have the best of all worlds.
Tavis: It just doesn’t fit.
Grier: But I know, I’m part of the Black West.
Tavis: That doesn’t fit, though, Pam.
Grier: I know, yeah, I know, (laughter) but you have to understand my grandmamma carried a gun in her apron (unintelligible) forever, and that’s how I was able to handle firearms with confidence, because I had hunting rifles. I was hunting as a little girl with my relatives, and fishing, and my grandfather said, “I want all the girls to know how to bring the boat in, to survive, to pitch a tent, to skin fish, to go hunting,” and that’s what he taught me.
So that might be – (laughter) I may not have a MAC-10, but I have a .30-06 shotgun.
Tavis: You have dated – I’m switching gears now from your grandfather to some other men.
Grier: From guns to dating, yes.
Tavis: From guns to dating, yeah. How’s that for a segue?
Grier: Coming from you, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, but my time is running and I’ve got to get these two things out. There are two guys in particular, both of whom I love, two guys in particular who you dated, and there are two interesting stories about the two of them. Let me take them in this order – Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
So you dated Kareem back in the day. Kareem, as you write, wanted to marry you at one point, but the issue of converting came up. Kareem, of course, starts out as Lew Alcindor, changes his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Kareem wants to marry you, wants you to convert, and I raise that now because I literally was just online yesterday reading an interesting article about a number of persons in my business, in the world of journalism, who have been married and one or the other changed, converted, to consummate the marriage.
I think of John King and Dana Bash at CNN; he converted. I think of – speaking of CNN – Campbell Brown and her husband, she converted to marry Dan Senor. But you had an issue with the converting thing. Why?
Grier: Well, Islam is a 14th century legacy of a dogma that is not as fair to women, from our Western perspective. From their perspective, it’s fine. They don’t need education, we take care of them, the man takes care of them. But there were things about becoming a Muslim woman, and today we’re immersed in learning about that culture.
I felt there could be no promises. What if I didn’t have children, and I’m going to have to approve the second wife, and I need to help my family, do I ask him, “Can I?” I need to get an education if we divorce.
I really believe in that independence, which is a part of my being in the women’s movement. So that was my dilemma, and I loved him dearly and today we’re best friends. He’s a survivor, as I am, a cancer survivor, and I just didn’t – he didn’t give me enough time to embrace it, and maybe if he had I may have.
Tavis: You might have married Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
Grier: I may have. Then again, may not, because there were issues. There were questions that he couldn’t answer, and it was –
Tavis: Well, it was new to him, too, at the time, though.
Grier: Yes.
Tavis: He was just converting himself.
Grier: Yeah, and I think he had been familiar, maybe, two years, and then the other person –
Tavis: Take a guess who the other person is I want to raise – just take one wild guess.
Grier: Richard Pryor.
Tavis: Richard Pryor, ding, ding, ding, ding.
Grier: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. (Laughter) You get the prize, that’s your door.
Tavis: Richard Pryor – I have never talked – I think I can say this with certainty. I have not talked to one comedian in all of my career on TV or radio, Black or White, who has not said to me that Pryor was the king, that he was the absolute best, and you dated the king of all comedy.
Grier: And I made him laugh. (Laughter) I had him in a bathrobe one morning; Ginger from the Mudbone folklore had been injured. He didn’t have a horse trailer to take him to the vet, so I said, “Richard, we’re going to put Ginger in the back seat of my Jaguar.”
My yellow Jag, a four-door, and he pushed and I pulled her through and we went down the 405, the Jag bouncing and sparks, (laughter) and created chaos. We were about to be arrested. They will not believe it. News at 11 helicopters, “There are two Black people in a yellow Jag with a horse in the back seat.” How do you explain this? (Laughter) “And the brother in the bathrobe is Richard Pryor.”
Tavis: And the driver –
Grier: “And the sister is Foxy Brown.”
Tavis: Yeah.
Grier: It also, for me, I realized – (laughter).
Tavis: I’m sorry, go ahead.
Grier: No, no, keep on, keep on. That’s how I felt. When I tell people, they go, “You crazy.” That’s how he was laughing. When we got back, he was laughing hysterically.
Tavis: How does that make you feel, to make Richard Pryor laugh that hard?
Grier: Wonderful. Wonderful, that I made him laugh, made him happy. Literally, I realized that I wasn’t materialistic. We towed a car but we saved a life, and that has been basically my lifeline – save the life, save my life, save his life.
Tavis: How can you not end on that note? Wow. The new book from Pam Grier is appropriately called “Foxy, My Life in Three Acts.” I have just scratched the surface on a whole goo-gob of wonderful stories in this book by Pam Grier.
Grier: Well, we’ll have a part two.
Tavis: We’ll do it some other time.
Grier: We have to have a – there’s a part two coming, I can see it in your eyes. (Laughter) I can see it right now.
Tavis: You know what, as long as you’re Pam Grier –
Grier: Regarding Richard Pryor, okay. And by the way, what happened when you kissed Richard?
Tavis: No, forget Richard Pryor.
Grier: What happened with your mouth when you kissed Richard Pryor?
Tavis: Yeah, you know what –
Grier: Look at you blushing.
Tavis: I’m blushing because I want to say this – as long as you’re Pam Grier, there can be a part two, part three, part four, part – you can come back to this show any time you want, Pam Grier.
Grier: Well, we’ve got to do a part two.
Tavis: We’ll do it.
Grier: There are some really interesting issues that I think you would just love.
Tavis: I enjoyed the read. Glad to have you on.

Grier: Thank you, thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm